Had an interesting talk with a friend and colleague awhile back. This was a late-night conversation, during which I mentioned that nearly all long-term, experienced firearms trainers have had students injure themselves during their classes. That was a euphemism: I actually meant that some students have shot themselves during class. My friend was horrified and a little disbelieving. But it’s true.
Whenever we as instructors get together to compare notes with other professionals who teach people how to work and live with firearms, it won’t be long before we realize that nearly everyone in the room has at least one horror story of their own to share. Many of those who have been doing this a long time have more than one such story.
As a trainer, my personal motto is, “Not on my watch!” It means I’m going to do everything in my power to stop injuries and accidents before they happen. If someone injures themselves, it will somewhere else at some other time than in one of my classes. It will not happen on my watch.
Every time I step up to teach, I’m acutely conscious of the risks we face when we handle firearms. Every class starts with a detailed safety brief. Every student signs a liability release. Every program begins with dry fire so I can see how students’ trigger fingers habitually behave and so we can fix any bad habits before we go live.
When students learn to draw from the holster, we start very slow and make sure everyone is doing things correctly, and in the proper sequence before we load the firearms. We start slowly and add speed only after students have demonstrated proficient levels of safety in slow motion. We don’t work from concealment until I’ve seen that every shooter on the line can work safely from an exposed holster.
We enforce a “hard break” – a brief rest at the low ready position to give students time to change mental gears – before allowing anyone to put their guns back into the holsters. When they do holster, I make them keep their fingers flagged away from the side of the gun so there’s little chance that the edge of the holster will force a straightened finger onto the trigger as the gun enters the holster. We use a technique that anchors the non-dominant hand out of the way, so nobody will point a gun at their own hand during the holstering process.
My assistants and I do everything in our power to slow down the action and get people doing things safely and correctly before we use live ammunition. We make sure students have built good habits before we add any speed or any stress to their work with firearms. We work hard to keep our people safe.
Nevertheless. A great many people whom I deeply respect, who are just as cautious as I am, have had students shoot themselves during class. This has not happened because they are bad instructors, or because they are lazy, or inattentive, or unobservant. It isn’t because they are less than professional or because they don’t know what they’re doing or because they don’t know what to watch for and what to do when they see it. And I’m no smarter than these guys, no more alert, no more cautious.
|It’s impossible to eliminate the risk of handling firearms. What we do is dangerous. So we don’t eliminate risk for the students. We manage it. That’s our job as instructors. – John Farnam|
That’s an uncomfortable truth.
Ultimately, no matter how careful we are, no matter how many good safety procedures we put in place during class, we cannot remove every possible risk when our students are handling deadly weapons. As an experienced trainer, I’m acutely aware of that.
Learning to use a handgun safely requires an absolutely perfect, unwavering and unflawed attention to detail from both the instructor and the student. And sometimes even the best people blink.
For those who are new to this endeavor, or who believe that it’s always possible to control everything that every student does on the line, I’d like you to watch an online video. Before you do, here’s the mental exercise I want you to perform: I want you to visualize yourself standing right next to this shooter in the ideal “range safety officer” position. That’s within close arm’s reach just behind the shooter’s strong side shoulder, where you have a good clear view of the shooter’s trigger finger and holster, and where you can easily reach the shooter’s gun hand just by reaching forward.
Starting at 0:25 and continuing through 0:28, watch only that short section of video. There’s a slow motion replay a little later where you can see every last bit of the drama in excruciating detail. But please, don’t watch the rest right away. Pause the video at 0:28 and answer the questions below based on one viewing of the section from 0:25 to 0:28 only. That’s at normal speed, the speed at which these things actually happen.
Of course, we all knew a negligent discharge (ND) was coming because I just told you it would be, and because we’ve either seen the video before or at least because we read the headline before we hit “play.”
But still, even though you know the job is artificially easy for you because you could see it coming, mentally put yourself in the place of an imaginary instructor – someone standing right there, staring directly at the shooter from within close arm’s reach. Realistically, would that imaginary instructor really have the reflexes to stop this shooter’s negligent discharge before it happened?
If you were that imaginary instructor …
- Would you have been fast enough to reach over and physically prevent him from pointing the gun at himself as soon as you saw his finger going to the trigger?
- What if he wasn’t your only student, and if you had two or three or five other students to watch at the same time?
- What if you were calling the range commands from a few steps farther away, rather than hovering right over his shoulder?
- Would you have predicted this event, or seen it coming in time to stop it, if you had been working with this shooter all day, and had not seen any previous unsafe behavior from him (especially if you also had other students to watch who had presented more of an ongoing safety concern throughout the day?)
This is why we require liability releases from our students before the shooting starts.
If you aren’t a complete control freak with an almost obsessive compulsion for range safety – while simultaneously being able to accept that some risks will always be outside your control – then being a firearms instructor isn’t the job for you.
So, it’s hopeless?
That’s originally where I intended to leave this article, on that very sobering note for instructors. But when I showed it to an early reader, he was horrified. “Do you mean, shooting accidents can never be prevented? You’re going to scare people away, they’ll give up on firearms training entirely because, because, because … well, what’s the use?”
He was right. You as the reader might very well have come to that conclusion. So let me be Little Miss Sunshine here and give you even more good news.
An ounce of prevention…
First of all, of course this ND could have been prevented. All NDs can be prevented! That’s why we call them N-for-Negligent, rather than A-for-Accidental, discharges. Negligent means someone neglected to do something they really should have done, something that would have made a difference in the outcome.
In this particular case, the shooter in that video could have avoided any hint of danger by choosing better gear. A holster that requires you to use your trigger finger for anything other than pressing the trigger is a bad design. And it certainly doesn’t pair well with a mental habit of trusting an external, mechanical safety to keep you out of trouble. (We hear that mindset expressed in the shooter’s explanation of what happened and how it happened; listen for it when you watch the entire video.) A bad gear choice does not pair at all well with complacency and a misbehaving trigger finger! So the shooter himself could have stayed safer simply by choosing better gear, by building a better safety mindset, and by having a better-behaved trigger finger.
Our imaginary instructor – who was not present in real life – may very well have stopped this ND long before the drawstroke started. As many professional trainers do, our imaginary instructor could have forbidden the use of a suboptimal, trigger-finger-activated holster during class. Or the instructor could have insisted that the student not switch from one holster type to another once the class had started. Either of those rules would have avoided the shooter’s crosswired confusion, which was caused by using two fundamentally-incompatible holster systems on the same day.
The instructor could also have insisted that the student do a large number of slow-motion repeats of a correct, safety-conscious drawstroke with the unfamiliar holster before allowing him to load his firearm. Those extra repetitions in dry fire would very likely have extinguished the bad trigger-finger behavior before it became truly dangerous.
At a more basic level, just the mere presence of an instructor, or at least of a separate videographer, would likely have eliminated the shooter’s distraction with the video recording process. Getting rid of that particular distraction may have improved the shooter’s overall attention to what he was doing with the loaded gun. That, too, would probably have increased his safety and reduced his risk.
All of the above is true. There were many ways this ND could have been derailed before someone was bleeding on the ground and well before lightning-quick reflexes were needed to avert disaster.
But what’s also true is that once those extra safety layers have been used – once the gear has been chosen, once the instructor has taught and demo’d and supervised and otherwise made the process as safe as it can humanly be made – well, at some point all those extra safety layers go away. The student loads the gun, the line goes hot, the timer starts.
At that point, the only safety layer left in place is the shooter’s own behavior. Nothing else.
The reality is, an outside human’s reflexes just aren’t fast enough to stop everything dangerous the shooter might do. That’s why, as instructors, we work hard to control all the variables we can control. It’s why we act early to extinguish behaviors that can cause trouble later on. We do it because we know that after the train goes a certain distance down the track, our outside reflexes won’t be fast enough to stop the trainwreck from happening.
The student’s dilemma
Some people might wonder, “Well, then, if an instructor cannot absolutely guarantee that I will always behave safely during class, and if they can’t fly across the range faster than a speeding bullet to stop every possible danger in my world, does the benefit of going to class really outweigh the risk?”
Yes. Yes, it does.
In the long run people always behave more safely when they know what to do than when they don’t. You, me, that guy over there – all of us are going to behave more safely when we’ve been taught how to make safe choices than when we haven’t. We’ll be safer when we’ve been encouraged to choose safer and better gear, to practice new skills in dry fire rather than with loaded guns, and to pay close attention to the details most people miss when they teach themselves. We will behave more safely when we have received good, solid, honest feedback from an outside observer than we will when we haven’t.
You’ll certainly be safer for having practiced your gunhandling skills under competent supervision on a calm day at the range than you will if you try them out for the very first time on some dark night when someone is trying to kill you.
With focused supervision from a good instructor, with careful attention to detail and multiple repetitions of the skill, we work to prevent students from doing anything unsafe during the class. Even if the students do something foolish at some point, the multiple and redundant layers of safety enforced by an observant teacher will sharply reduce the risk of injury.
How do people get hurt?
For those who would avoid firearms training class for fear of being shot by the other students, let me offer one tiny bit of cheerful news: when mishaps do happen, far more people shoot themselves unintentionally than shoot others unintentionally. This is particularly true within the confines of a good class, where an alert instructor maintains safety protocols that reduce the opportunities people have to point firearms at others.
By far the most common pattern for unintentional injuries involves a gunshot wound in the right leg or the left hand. The injury to the right leg usually consists of a stripe down the outside of the leg, directly in line with the student’s holster. It happens because the student tried to holster the gun without removing his or her finger from the trigger, with predictable results.
|“Every gun owner believes that his or her gun handling is safe, regardless of how good or bad that gun handling is. This is an example of illusory superiority, a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their positive qualities and abilities and to underestimate their negative qualities, relative to others. It’s also known as the Lake Wobegon effect, because none of us believe we are below average.” – Karl Rehn|
The injury to the left hand happens when a right-handed shooter carelessly puts the left hand directly in front of the muzzle while handling the gun – sometimes during a reload, but more often (you guessed it) while holstering the gun.
My advice: if you’re concerned about being the victim of an unintentional gunshot injury, learn everything you can about how to safely use a holster. Don’t just assume that because any fool could figure out how to drop a gun into a gun-bucket strapped to his waist, you’re good to go.
“Just go to the range and practice a lot”
Unintentional, injurious shootings happen on public ranges and on private property far more often than they happen during professional firearms training classes. There’s a reason for that.
Here’s a fun factoid. In 2013, according to the CDC (http://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/nfirates2001.html), more than 16,000 Americans presented themselves at a hospital needing emergency treatment for non-fatal, unintentional gunshot wounds. That’s one person every half hour, all year long.
During that same year, approximately 800 people were killed by unintentional gunshot wounds. That’s more than two people every single day who did not need to die, people who would not have died if the person handling the gun had known how to handle it safely and had done so by practiced habit.
Learning defensive handgun skills within the confines of a good class reduces your risk of doing something stupid with any firearm, on or off the range, for the rest of your life. That’s one of the primary benefits of a good class. After all, when we have successfully engrained good, safe gunhandling skills to the point of automaticity, so that they will hold up even during the extreme stress of a life-threatening encounter, those same safe gunhandling skills will much more likely hold up during the more mundane stress of an ordinary brain fart. And it’s those everyday brain farts that hurt and kill good people.
Professional firearms instructors know that working to help people become safer and more skilled with their firearms ultimately saves lives. We know it because we have all seen radically unsafe behavior on the range by smart people who simply don’t know any better yet, and because we have all seen the radical improvement in safety consciousness that comes once people have actively been taught how to behave safely around guns.
A well-designed class led by a skillful firearms trainer can reduce the students’ risk during their learning with the gun from unacceptably high all the way down to almost non-existent. But no matter how good we are as instructors, we can never eliminate that word almost. That’s because at some point, we have to take off the training wheels and let the students pedal the bike on their own.
No matter how dedicated and careful your instructor might be, in the end, your personal safety is your personal responsibility. It really cannot be any other way.
Understanding all the above may help us swallow this bittersweet truth, an inoculant against misplaced blame for dedicated instructors: No matter how carefully we watch over our students as they learn, we can never provide the final layer of safety for them. Ultimately, our students must do that for themselves.